I’ve officially gone off the deep end

deep end

This is day 31 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions “What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?,” “What does it mean to be authentic?” and “How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?” More info here.

I never thought I’d be the one writing about “fluffy,” “sentimental” stuff like vulnerability, acceptance, authenticity, and worthiness. But here I am, on day 31 of (whoops) #30daysofvulnerability, and that’s all that’s on my mind.

If you look back at my writing from college, I’m talking about productivity and rationality and success. I even had a blog once called Joie d’Achieve (that should have been a clue).

Turns out that everything works until it doesn’t work. Being over-focused on achievement worked for me (sort of) for 25 years. But it’s not working anymore.

It makes a lot of sense to me now why self-improvement content is so personal. Gretchen Rubin discovered this when she asked readers what their personal commandments were, and got a ton of contradictory answers: Do more. Do less. Say yes. Say no. Let go. Hold on.

It’s like a pendulum – I’ve been swinging so far to the side of productivity and achievement that I’ve swung all the way to the top and the pendulum is upside down, and I have all the stability of an upside-down pendulum. What I need now isn’t what I needed then – or at least, not what I thought I needed. Maybe if I had encountered these ideas earlier, I wouldn’t be so unbalanced now. But I doubt I would have listened.     

What I learned is the value of being open-minded. Today, I’ve read books that I wouldn’t have touched four years ago. I’ve entertained ideas and concepts and exercises that I would have seen as silly, irrational, or weak. But guess what? It works now. It’ll work until it doesn’t work.

So I’m here on day 31 to tell you about my new three goals. I wrote about how productivity is not a useful happiness proxy, at least not for me. Maybe I’ll fare better with these:

Courage, not success. Focusing on success often means I’m hesitant to try new things and get discouraged in the face of discomfort and stress. Courage means attempting and persisting even when things are hard. Even if I don’t get every single thing on my to-do list done with the patience and peace of a Buddhist, I can still decide to persevere and stay engaged and not give up. I love how Brené Brown says that vulnerability is life’s great dare, asking if you’re all in. I so want to be all in, living with my whole heart, not holding back.

Authenticity, not perfection. Who knew? Turns out I’m not perfect. Or the smartest. Or the best. I want to find out who I am besides an intelligent, productive person. I want to learn about and value my other traits, like being kind and good and curious. I want to listen to my feelings (God, I never thought I’d write this) and not be constantly telling myself how I “should” feel.

Play, not productivity. For a long time, I had this feeling that people who acted silly were dumb, unintelligent. Turns out silly people are very, very smart. I want to smile enough that no one on the street can joke that I dropped my smile (not funny, people!). I want to laugh enough so I get wrinkles and don’t care. I want to play and do nothing and take breaks and cut myself some slack.

So there you have it. None of this is going to be easy, because I still haven’t kicked out the little gremlin inside of me that’s constantly jumping up and down shouting, “Work! Work! Work!” He’s such a jerk, I should totally evict him, but we’re good friends and I’m not quite sure where I’d be without him. I’m not even sure I’m ready to get friendly with a flowery, emotional, Zen fairy, but I know she’s a lot nicer and she won’t call me names. And if she makes me happier, that’s all I’m asking for.

Photo by Flickr user Sarah Ross photography

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Are you passing life’s little tests?

Brown - experiment 13+15

This is day 24 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?” More info here.

The man who survived the Holocaust and came through with a positive attitude. The 17-year-old girl who spoke out against life under the Taliban. The cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France (before all that drug stuff).

I’ve always felt an odd combination of awe and uneasiness when contemplating the greatness of such people, and now I think I know why. I admire them for their resilience – bouncing back after adversity – at the same time that I question if I’d be capable of it.

There’s a widespread belief that these traumatic moments are when our true self emerges. But how can we know how we’d react to cancer, abuse, tyranny? It’s like contemplating heroic acts – I think I would save someone from drowning…right?

If we want to know the answer, we need look no further than life’s daily discomforts. When Gretchen Rubin created the Happiness Project, she realized that part of her motivation was to prepare for tragedy – her husband’s future liver failure. Not only was she creating a storehouse of happy memories, she was also learning to deal with life’s frustrations.

If we can’t deal with losing a sock, will we be able to deal with our spouse’s liver failure? If a cold is devastating, what will diabetes be like? If we can’t stop thinking about the $5 we lost, what will happen when we lose our job? And so on.

To eliminate the fear that we’d collapse under the adversity, we need to start with the lost socks and colds and bills. Instead of getting annoyed, we can think of them as life’s little exercises – mini-training in resilience. And slowly, the uneasiness and fear may give way to calm and courage.

Photo by Flickr user r.nial.bradshaw

Are you a happiness addict?

Smiley coffee

My name is Kira, and I’m (sometimes) a happiness addict.

When the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes out, I’m itching to watch it and then it’s done – another week to wait until the next installment. As Friday nears, I start setting my sights on the luscious free time I’ll have to work on my blog, relax, and eat a rare dessert (preferably chocolate). Sometimes – just sometimes – it feels like my life is a series of waiting, highs, and disappointment-that-it’s-over.

That sounds a bit like an addiction. In fact, Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, calls the afterward part of this cycle a “happiness hangover.”

Yet the beforehand part – the anticipation – is supposed to be one of the major components of happiness. The New York Times advises you to “Find Happiness in the Pursuit”; Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says “Get More Bang for Your Happiness Buck: Revel in Anticipation.” One Dutch study found that planning a vacation can boost our happiness weeks or months in advance.

According to The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot, anticipation is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening. To boil it down: this is why brides can’t sleep the night before their weddings.

So what’s going on here? How can anticipation be so good, yet seem like it’s part of a vicious cycle of happiness addiction?

I think the problem is something that Nataly Kogan, the CEO of Happier, often talks about. She says that she created the app for sharing happy moments because she wanted people to stop saying, “I’ll be happy when…” and start saying, “I’m happy now because…” This usually applies to two separate events: you shouldn’t say, “I’ll be happy when I have $1 million” but rather, “I’m happy now because I get to hang out with my son.” But it can also describe two types of anticipation: the healthy type and the unhealthy type.

In healthy anticipation, we think something like, “I’m happy now because I’m looking forward to meeting my friend tonight.” We actually feel happy, because we can imagine the pleasure it will bring. The unhealthy anticipation goes, “I’ll be happy when I see my friend.” We don’t feel the pleasure now; we’re just waiting out our bad day until we can reach the oasis of our friend’s company. We’d happily skip all the in-between time and get right to socializing. To maximize happiness, we need to embrace healthy anticipation but avoid the unhealthy kind.

The happiness hangover afterward is a little trickier, but I think some things are more likely to cause hangovers than others. Anticipating something short – like a meal or a one-hour TV show – will probably induce a hangover, because the moment of happiness is so fleeting. Afterward, we wonder, “What was I so excited about?” Even vacations can be problematic: that Dutch study found that happiness generally goes back to normal after a vacation; the most we can hope for (if our vacation was very relaxing) is a short, two-week boost.

So avoiding happiness hangovers might boil down to focusing our anticipation on more permanent things: finding the right job, moving into a new apartment, being (not getting) married. Though the initial novelty may wear off, at least you won’t experience the disappointment of losing the thing you were so looking forward to.

Are you a happiness addict?

Photo by Flickr user OnyRod

Quotes of the week

White cliffs of Dover

“Stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be”

– Elizabeth Gilbert (via Guy Kawasaki)

“Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass . . . it’s about learning to dance in the rain’’

– Vivian Greene (via The Optimism Advantage)

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”

– Winston Churchill (via Nataly Kogan of Happier)

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”

– Rumi (via Guy Kawasaki)

“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness”

– Bertrand Russell (via Gretchen Rubin)